The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart opens with 9-year-old Alice Hart dreaming of ways to set her father on fire. The desk where she sits is made of eucalyptus and superbly crafted by her him. But the same man who lovingly creates beautiful objects, is also the monster whose ‘blue eyes turn black with rage.’ A man easy with his fists, capable of throwing a puppy against the side of a washing machine and of doing much worse to his pregnant wife and daughter.
For Alice and her mother, it’s like living on the brim of a volcano, never knowing when it will erupt. After Alice barely survives a family tragedy, she is taken in by her Akubra, Blundstone wearing grandmother, June. A flower farmer, June teaches traumatised Alice the ‘language’ of Australian native flowers, which becomes a way to say things that are too hard to speak.
Estranged from her son, Clem, Alice’s father, June has her own demons to wrestle with. Although brusque, almost sharp at times, inside June is hurting, wracked with guilt over all that’s happened. She drinks. Her one great hope is that the flower farm that has been her salve, will eventually become Alice’s, not only as a sanctuary from the past but as a place to heal and grow strong.
But Alice is in a bad place. Missing her idyllic seaside home, surrounded by total strangers, haunted by horrible nightmares and prone to anxiety attacks. Two sources of comfort come in the shape of June’s dog, the lovely Harry, who seems to take on himself to befriend and support Alice and infinitely wise Twig, June’s right hand at the farm.
Twig (stern and resolute): ‘If anything, she(Alice), deserves more. From You. From us. From this place. She’s your family’.
‘She’s his,’ June retorted. ‘She’s his, and I don’t want to care.’
‘Good luck with that,’ Twig said, her voice softening.’
Holly Ringland grew up wild and barefoot in her mother’s tropical garden and it shows. She is a sensual writer whose lush descriptions, takes you into the landscape, to the smells, the sights, into the very air around the characters. ‘Outside the wind tore the petals off her mother’s white roses and scattered them across the yard like fallen stars.’
And this scene: At first light, June rose from bed, slid her feet into her Blundstones and went silently through the house to the back door. Outside, the world was cool and blue. She held herself in it, breathing it in. She hadn’t slept well, not even after draining her flask of whisky. As the sky lightened…she collected clippers and a basket before making her way through the fields toward the native flower greenhouses. The morning was filled with the low drone of bees and occasional magpie song.
Inside the greenhouse was rich and damp.’
Ringland’s poetic descriptions of the elements, is matched by the haunting, lyrical power of her writing to inject authentic, raw emotion. The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is on the one hand a simple story about a young girl with an abusive father and a withdrawn, embittered grandmother. But into this family drama seeps lots of other interesting themes including the healing power of nature, the dark aftermath of trauma and the cyclical nature of violence.
It also addresses one of the most confounding questions of human existence – how to break the patterns of the past, live on your own terms and find your own strength?
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart arrived with a huge build-up. It is the Australian debut novel everyone has been talking about. ‘International publishing sensation, sold to seventeen territories’ shouts the proud publishers. And there’s the great endorsements from revered authors and the rave reviews. The bar couldn’t be raised any higher.
But does it meet expectations? Yes, yes and YES, it does.
If I could shout it from the hilltops, I would.
Holly Ringland grew up wild and barefoot in her mother’s tropical garden in Northern Australia. When she was nine years old, her family lived in a camper van for two years in North America,travelling from one national park to another, an experience that sparked Holly’s lifelong interest in cultures and stories. In her twenties, Holly worked for four years in a remote Indigenous community in the central Australian desert. She moved to England in 2009 and obtained her MA in Creative Writing from the University of Manchester in 2011. She now lives between the UK and Australia. Holly’s essays and short fiction have been published in various anthologies and literary journals. In 2015, the first chapter of The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart won Griffith Review’s annual writer award, which included a week-long fellowship at Varuna House, Australia’s top national writing residency.